I hate carrying a lot of stuff when I travel! I curse every minute while lugging a suitcase up stairs or over cobblestones. But like most people I do enjoy my creature comforts. I like having more than one outfit, I like having more than one pair of shoes, and I like being prepared for different scenarios.
Over the years I have experimented with traveling light. The most I will usually bring on a trip is a carry-on size suitcase and a small backpack. But lately I have been experimenting with only traveling with a small backpack of about 35 liters.
Of course on a weekend trip it is easy to pack light. You only need a few items of clothing and probably don’t need to tote along your computer and tons of toiletries. However my trips are usually more than a week or two, often more than a month. Here is what I bring along.
My art supplies and camera gear I travel with as a digital nomad. I stayed at a great Airbnb in Fife, Scotland.
Packing Light: Electronics
I work remotely so I need my computer. In fact, I am typing this post while on a train from Amsterdam to Berlin. No matter how small, a computer and charger adds weight. I use the smallest MacBook Air – the 11 inch. While quite tiny and lightweight it is still a few pounds. My laptop case is neoprene and I have had it for about 8 years. It originally fit my old bulky white MacBook so it is not the most streamlined. I am due for an upgrade, but I hate to waste the perfectly good if too large cover.
My work also involves photography, and it is a favorite hobby of mine as well. I always bring my camera, but lately I have been leaving my DSLR at home in favor of a point and shoot. The DSLR takes awesome photos but is just too heavy and bulky to carry all the time. I like my Canon S110 but in the future I plan to upgrade to a mirrorless camera or more advanced compact digital. The S110 was excellent when I bought it but five years later there are better ones on the market. If I am only going to use a small camera I’d like it to be the best I can afford. So I better start saving those pennies!
Packing Light: Clothing and Shoes
I try to bring as little clothing as possible while still allowing for some outfit changes. In the summer I wear dresses exclusively. I find I can bring 4-6 dresses – which I prefer rather than having a dress, a pair or two of jeans and several tops. Lately I have been staying in much warmer places where jeans are not necessary and thus just an added bulky weight to pack. In winter instead of sundresses, I will pack jeans and leggings and maybe one dress for going to dinner or drinks. Think about how you can streamline your “uniform” so that you aren’t carrying unnecessary items just to have a full wardrobe.
I always pack my swimsuit just in case! If it fits with your style, you can pair a one piece swimsuit with shorts, jeans or a skirt for another outfit in warmer weather. And a sports bra and bikini bottoms or even dark undies can work for swimming in a pinch.
Depending on how you like to sleep and the weather where you are headed, you might like to pack pajamas. I wear a pair of thin black pants and a tshirt to bed when traveling. I find this is conservative enough when sleeping in a shared space like a hostel and while very ugly, the clothes can also be worn on the street if needed. When it is really hot and I have my own room I usually just forego the PJs. But I always pack them in case. They make good loungewear as well. An alternative for hotter weather is a light cotton dress.
Like most people, I walk a lot when I travel. I have found comfortable shoes are a necessity, and that I like shoes with grippy soles. I’ve always been a bit of a cute shoe whore, but when I travel I try to go basic. I bring two or three pairs of shoes. In summer, two sandals and one pair of sneakers. In winter maybe two pairs of boots or boots and sneakers, depending on the destination. I have very small feet so I can luckily fit more shoes in my bag than a person who wears size 42. I also bring along a set of cushioned insoles for my boots or sneakers, or I buy a pair on the road if I’m on a longer adventure. My shoes do wear out very quickly when I am traveling, and in that case I go shopping wherever I am and replace them.
How many pairs of underwear and socks do you bring for a two week or month long trip? Fourteen pairs? NO! I bring about four pairs. You can hand wash underwear and socks very easily. Have you tried ExOfficio or SmartWool undies? Supposedly they dry super fast and you can even wear them for days without washing, due to their odor preventative qualities. I haven’t tried them yet.
Also I tend to stay in Airbnbs when possible so that I can cook and do laundry. Since I don’t have a lot of clothing I tend to do laundry about once a week anyway and having only four or five pairs never seems to be a problem. And no I don’t wear them for more than one day. However, when you only have a few pairs of underwear and socks they do wear out more quickly. About once every two months I like to buy new underwear and socks, depending on my activities.
Even in summer I like to be sure to have some kind of a jacket, and I always carry a light weight scarf. In winter I wear a down coat and bring a warm blanket scarf. A scarf is so useful! I can use it as a blanket, a towel, a hood, sun shade, a place to sit, even a napkin! When visiting conservative countries or sites you can use it to cover your head, bare shoulders, legs and butt, or whatever needs hiding.
Sometimes when I am traveling for longer periods the weather changes and I no longer need that sweater, wool scarf, swimsuit or sundress. Other times I just decide I am sick of an item of clothing and want to replace it with something different. I’m definitely not going to carry it around on my back if I don’t need it! I always try to recycle my clothing by donating it if in good condition. Most cities have places to donate clothing. Sometimes even just for fabric recycling! You might need to do a bit of research to find a place where you are, but try google and try churches or humanitarian organizations.
Packing light is great when traveling in a small cabin on a boat! Here’s the ferry trip I took from England to Spain.
Packing Light: Toiletries
I’m a girl, and I wear makeup. I try to be minimalist with it. I bring foundation, eyeliner, lipstick and mascara, plus a few extras. To remove my makeup I carry a tiny jar of coconut oil which I can also use for dry skin and lips. When traveling I like to feel a little fancy by painting my nails. So I bring a bottle of nail polish as well or buy one on the road.
Of course I always have a toothbrush and paste, as well as mini sized shampoo. I also carry sunscreen (especially in summer). I have a travel hairbrush that I use about once a month haha and I bring along a razor. I usually wax but I find it is good to have a razor too just in case. In addition I always pack tweezers and small scissors.
I carry a variety of medications. I always have Advil with me for cramps, headaches and hangovers :D. I don’t often use it but I always carry it with me in case. Always. In my little Advil bottle I also carry a few Nyquil pills or other decongestant. For first aid I have a tube of Neosporen and a handful of bandaids. I always travel with the Neosporen ever since I got a little scratch on my ear in Cuba and it got infected and painful. Luckily a travel companion had Neosporen, it saved the day!
Another small thing that is always in my pack is a needle and thread and a safety pin. This is a travel must! I found this old mint container that perfectly fits a spool of thread and a needle. It’s awesome! I use it all the time. A bit of duct tape can also be handy.
I’m an artist and I love to paint and draw. When traveling with a 35 liter pack for weeks it is impossible to fit a lot of art supplies in addition to the above items. Honestly I could easily fill the whole pack with just paints and sketchpads but I try to bring the bare minimum when on long trips. I carry a small sketchbook and a travel watercolor set and or pens and pencils. These supplies don’t take up too much space or weight other than the paper! And to me the worst thing is carrying around a completed sketchbook. It is no longer “useful” but of course I can’t just toss it! This is something I currently struggle with. The paper problem. Paper is heavy!
To solve the paper problem I have also experimented with using only an iPad Pro and iPencil. This is also a bit heavy but you can draw and paint as much as you like and it never gets heavier! For me there is something about the process of drawing in analog that relaxes me so it isn’t completely satisfying but at least it is another option. When packing light I tend to choose either the iPad or sketchbook, but not both.
I love to read and luckily we don’t have to carry pounds of books with us anymore. Sometimes I’ll buy or trade a paperback and often I read ebooks on my laptop. I could buy a Kindle or use my phone or iPad to read but so far I haven’t found the need for yet another gadget. I know many travelers love them though, and they are tiny. I tend to read less when traveling actually since on a train or bus I am looking out the window or working on my computer or talking to a new friend. I am never bored! For information and entertainment on the road I often listen to podcasts or music. At this moment I am listening to a beautiful “chillout mix” of Arabic music, riding the train to Berlin and working on the computer.
Keeping Organized in Your Luggage
Many proponents of packing light use packing cubes. I just got some compression packing cubes from Eagle Creek, and I am testing them out. So far so good!I am going to experiment more with the packing cubes on my next trips. I was hesitant to try them as they are just another thing to carry, but I hear they make packing much more compact and efficient.
I usually keep my stuff compartmentalized in pouches and bags within my backpack. I have several small zipped pouches where I keep cords, chargers, memory cards or toiletries or art supplies. This helps keep me organized so I can easily find something within my bag. When I am staying in my accommodations I reorganize the pouches and make one for everyday use that I carry with me that include extra batteries, charger cords, extra SD card, pens and pencils, etc.
My shoes are always packed in a recycled plastic bag and often shoved to the bottom of the backpack. They are filthy so I don’t like them to touch my clothes. If my shoes are wet I will attach them to the outside of the bag so they can dry out.
I always pack two cotton tote bags. These are useful for carrying extras like food and drinks for a bus or train ride, and stuff you just can’t fit in your backpack at the moment. You can also use them as erstwhile packing cubes and organize items in your luggage using the totes. I also carry one with me daily in my bag for grocery shopping.
Packing Light: Bags & Luggage
Oh man. So I just took a 6 week trip to the USA to visit family. On the flight there I checked my carry on size wheeled suitcase. When I went to pick it up off the baggage carousel it had a big crack in the plastic body above the left wheel. Crap. But I figured it would hold together for a few more trips. However, while dragging it from the metro to the bus on the way to the hotel the right wheel fell off in the middle of the street! Not just the wheel, but the whole wheel attachment piece. And that wasn’t even the side with the huge crack.
So I lugged the bag from the hotel to the rental car to my family’s house and figured I’d pick up a used suitcase at a thrift store for the trip back home to Europe. I found one for a good price in good condition and was pretty happy. I checked it for my flight to Iceland and when I went to pick it up at the carousel in Reykjavik, you guessed it, broken. The handle that you grab to pick it up was broken in half with sharp metal protruding everywhere. And one of the zipper pulls was missing.
What’s the point of all this complaining? Well, I deduce that checking your bag is hazardous. They toss those things around and pile giant bags on top of your tiny one. If your bag isn’t super heavy duty it is bound to get damaged. Unless you want to buy a new suitcase each trip, it might be best to carry on. And that means packing light.
Usually when I travel to the USA I buy a few things to take home as gifts, so carry on only is not really feasible. But finding a way to travel light most of the time is the way to go for me.
Are you in the market for a new bag? I am.
When it comes to hard case luggage, Samsonite is one of the most popular. Tumi is a high end brand that is said to be really awesome. Spinner wheels are common now but they protrude so much I wonder how likely it is for them to snap off? I’m debating whether to buy a nice new carryon bag or just go for another cheap one that will last 2 years.
I have also been searching for a new carry on backpack for a while and I am looking at the Osprey Farpoint. I have an old Rick Steves carry on backpack that is similar to this model, but it is much too big and roomy – I don’t find it comfortable for my short stature.
As I mentioned about I also recently bought compression packing cubes from Eagle Creek, and I am experimenting with using them. I like the idea of keeping things compartmentalized and I like that they compress to save space. You do need to leave some things out of the cubes so that you can take advantage of the oddly shaped spaces left between the stuffed cubes. Socks and undies seem to do the trick.
Do you have luggage you love? Let me know!
Some Packing Light Resources
Here are a few of my favorite online resources for packing light.
- Her Packing List: a website for women about traveling with great articles about packing light. There is even an article about traveling for 3 weeks with only a handbag.
- Travel guru Rick Steves has a guide to packing light.
- The Minimalists: you’ve probably heard of Josh and Ryan already. They have a podcast episode on travel and packing light. I wouldn’t describe them as ultra-minimal or even very light packers but there are some good tips in the podcast.
- Carryology has a few good articles about packing light. I like this review of the best baackpacks for one (carryon) bag travel and this interview with the founder of One Bag One World.
- A guide to light and ultralight packing by Hobo Lifestyle.
- Lady Light Travel has some great hacks and tips for packing. Excellent!
Thanks for reading my treatise on packing light! I’m a bit obsessed about carrying what I need but still getting it to be as light and compact as possible. Almost every time I travel someone comments on the small size of my luggage. No matter what I have with me, my reply is always “oh.. it’s way too much stuff!” So I feel I definitely have a lot to work on.
That’s about it for my current packing light situation! If I discover any additional secrets I will update this article. Thanks for reading, I hope it helped you!